Each year, Coady International Institute presents an African woman leader the prestigious Katherine Fleming International Development Award at the StFX Homecoming Coffee with Coady event.
Family and friends created the annual award in memory of the late Katherine (Katie) Fleming, who dedicated her life to overcoming child poverty in Africa. Katherine, a StFX alumna ’85, died at her home in Tanzania in May 1999 at the age of 35.
The 20th anniversary of the memorial award took place October 5 – which would have been Katherine’s 56th birthday.
“I want to say how much this scholarship has honoured my mother,” Katherine’s daughter, Madeline Zutt said. “[She] dedicated her life to the women and children of this world – who were not born having the same opportunities so many of us in this room enjoy.
“Her commitment to fighting for gender equality in Africa has been an incredible guide for me, and a constant reminder to appreciate my own good fortune in this world.”
This year’s award is supporting Yvonne Marimo (Diploma in Development Leadership, 2011) to complete a research fellowship at Coady. Yvonne is the founder of the Global African Business Women’s Network (GAWN). As an entrepreneur and a personal development practitioner, she has a passion for empowering women and girls to embrace entrepreneurship as a tool for combating poverty and financial exclusion.
“For my mother, development in Africa and women’s empowerment were very important goals,” Madeline added. “I just know that were she here today, she would be so proud of the work Yvonne has done and continues to do to empower women and girls to use tools like entrepreneurship to lift themselves out of poverty.”
As Madeline, John Zutt (Katherine’s husband), George Fleming Sr. (Katherine’s father), and George Fleming Jr. (Katherine’s brother) presented the award Yvonne broke into song with “This Little Light of Mine” as the audience rose to their feet.
“It is with tremendous appreciation and pride that I stand before you today,” Yvonne said. “I can tell you that it is just wonderful to be back at Coady – a very unique and special place. It is like an oasis – a truly distinguished and prestigious institution.”
Yvonne shared the story of the inequalities her mother faced including how her date of birth was not formally registered as her brothers’ were – preventing her from accessing documentation such as a passport, and stripping her of even knowing how old she was. Her mother was not permitted to go to school as her brothers were. Nevertheless, she taught herself to read, write, sew, and sell garments to support herself and her family.
“In the face of all the hardships my mother endured, she made a vow to herself that never, never, ever, would her own daughters be made to feel like second class citizens,” Yvonne said. “She knew what a portrait of an empowered woman looked like.”
Yvonne said her mother’s dream was for every girl to have the right to education.
“She knew that education empowers women and girls and equips them with the tools they need to challenge the prejudices they may face whether cultural, social, political, economic, religious or gender-based,” she added.
She wanted to tell the story of her mother because it was situations like those that motivated Katherine Fleming’s work, as well as her own.
“I am the product of that amazing village grassroots woman,” Yvonne added. “That system of women who are downtrodden and made to remain at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
As Yvonne turned to her own story, she noted that although progress has been made in some areas, there is much work left to be done.
“I am pained to report that there are still thousands – if not millions – of children in Africa today who are malnourished,” she said. “Some are starving because of conditions created by senseless conflict, greed, poor political leadership, lack of opportunities, and lack of food due to the unpredictable effects of climate change.
“However, in the middle of this seemingly bleak situation, there is hope too. Because the human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.
“I see and work with women with the capacity to endure pain and life’s difficult or even tragic moments. They keep fighting and keep trying to put food on the table, despite setbacks.”
She closed with a story that inspired her to create the Global African Business Women’s Network, a story of a woman whose husband left her alone with two children to raise alone. Yvonne spoke of how this woman walked for miles to buy milk from a dairy farmer. She would then carry the 20 litres of milk on her head and return the many miles trip home. Once home, she would divide the milk into smaller portions and sell it to her neighbours. With the money she earned, she was able to enroll her children in school and her daughter is now working toward becoming a doctor.
“Leaders must expect failure,” Yvonne said. “During a moment of crisis, leaders work to find solutions to overcome setbacks.”
Yvonne gave thanks to the family, friends, and supporters who carry on Katherine Fleming’s legacy.
“While her loss is indeed a tragedy for her family and for us in Africa – a place she lived and loved – let us all remember that it is not the length of years that she lived, but the depth of how she lived her life.”
The celebration included a special message from friend and colleague, Stephen Lewis of the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
To learn more about the Katherine Fleming International Development Award, visit coady.stfx.ca/katherine-fleming-international-development-award/